Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Week in Paris

Chasing the birds in Paris

In May I went to Paris to attend the LISA Symposium (read the gravitational waves in space post if you are interested in the science; however, the trip to Paris deserves a post of its own.) The conference was held at the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, the National bibliotheque in Paris. It is a beautiful building that was named after France's longest serving president. It hosts the globes of Luis XIV, the longest reigning king in European history.  He reigned for 72 years and 110 days and became king before he was five years old. It is difficult to imagine trusting my five year old nephew, David, to be king and to lead a country. Of course, king Luis XIV had plenty of help in the beginning - with his mother and some cardinal being the actual rulers. However, he was considered of age at fifteen, went through the ritual of coronation, and eventually ended up being the Sun King, one of the most successful kings of France. So, it maybe that in the current epoch we ask too little of our children.

The globes of King Louis XIV are huge and show surprising detail. The non-explored coasts are blurry, while the explored coasts are drawn in solid line. They show a good knowledge of Africa, America and Asia, and even some knowledge of New Zealand. France had many colonies at the time and so geography was important.

My mom, David and Edward came to the bibliotheque when the meeting ended. It has very many wooden steps, and then a big platform on which the children fed and chased birds. They also saw the globes and some exhibitions from various donors. The latter included papers that looked like what I draw when I am bored with the difference being that those people have money and so the things they write or draw are valuable. Still, I am not sure I would donate my drawings to an exhibition even if I had tremendous amounts money (Why? This is a sample of my in-existent talent from grade school. It speaks for itself ... and note that my ability to draw has not improved since.)

We were not allowed to take pictures of the exhibits. Part of the reasoning behind this is that the value of old objects is maintained if they are kept in their original condition. The light from the numerous cameras can affect the paintings in similar ways in which the sun affects our skin;  it can change the colour of the image.

A small island on lac Daumesnil
The meeting was fairly long - from morning until 6:30 in the evening and by that time everything was closed. However, we skipped a day when there were mostly experimental talks and when to the park at the Lac Daumesnil where we rented a classic wooden boat with oars. The children loved the boat ride. We saw small turtles and a beautiful cave in the middle of the lake.  The lake also had what seemed like patches of oil in the water, which made us wonder what had been washed in the lake.

On Thursday, we went to a restaurant that Philippe selected whose former guests included Picasso and Francois Mitterand, who had ordered a curry. Mihai and I shared a fish dish, which was delicious. In addition to Philippe (my current postdoc advisor) and our research group in Zurich, we were also joined by a graduate student from Netherlands. She was originally from Nepal. We learned a bit about the tallest mountains in the world:  8 out of 10 of  the tallest mountains are in Nepal, which also has extremely high real estate prices (of the order a thousand of dollars per square meter) even though the population there is still fairly poor. There was no communism there and so land has always been thought as valuable. On the way back we saw the Eiffel tower from the metro, which goes overground in some areas in Paris.

First Impressions of Paris
Collective nursing...

Mihai at the oars
 Paris is a big city that feels very much alive with traffic and people that appear busy and are moving fast. For example, Parisians like to walk on the stair-like elevators in the metro/train stations.  In the US they always stand on those and I think in Switzerland people also seem relaxed. Time and customer service did not seem to matter so much at our hotel/apartment building, which was nice otherwise. They did not include the code to open the front door or to access our room, and forgot to mention that nobody would be there on Sunday. We arrived on Sunday, and  had to wait for several hours. Eventually, we received the code and were able to enter. The next day we received 2 Euros for our trouble. In the US, they would have apologized and given us at least a free night. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the conference was flawlessly organized, and the hotel was walking distance to the bibliotheque. It was also well catered and the food was particularly good.

The smoke behind the hotel
As expected, Paris is dirtier than Zurich.  I like Zurich much better for raising children because Zurich because it is a safe and relatively clean city. The walls, the corners and doors on most streets in Paris smell badly like pee. The non-touristic areas are full of poor people. Some are homeless. They live in tents or on the vents where the warm air exits the metro station, and seem to move surprisingly little. I guess they are afraid of losing their spots. Near various cement mixing places on the river Seine there were large groups of people looking for work in construction. We have also seen the police stopping (foreign) cars in search for drugs.

Next to a statue with soldiers and slaves/prisoners of war
In spite of all this dear reader, if you love art, you should visit Paris. The museums, the parks with plenty of beautiful statues and small lakes with boats to rent, and the National Biblioteque are all superb. Paris really is a center for art. Weather-wise, I think Paris is close enough to London to get its share of rain. It did rain the first day we were there, and we did not have appropriate attire for that. Luckily, the rest of the time was sunny just like it was predicted on the weather channel.

Walking along the Seine
Mihai was singing these two variants of the song below as we were walking through Paris. I am not exactly sure where he got it from - and I am also not sure I have my tenses right in French, but these verses are the closest that I can get to an appropriate ending for this post today.

"Le Parisienne, Le Parisienne, ...
   ils vivre sur la Seine."


"Le Parisienne, Le Parisienne,  
ils vivent sous le ciel près de la Seine"

Here it's important to point out that both Mihai and I are tone deaf. But even though the French are socialists - they still have streets named after Lenin, but not one with Stalin's name - they believe in the freedom of expression in all forms of art.

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